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For Sale: 400 Awesome Vintage Boomboxes

A New Zealand aficionado is auctioning off his collection of iconic 1980s music machines

(Craig Kenton/Trade Me)
smithsonian.com

New Zealander Craig Kenton admits he has a little bit of a problem. Fifteen years ago, the resident of Dunedin, the second largest city on New Zealand’s south island, bought an old boombox. He never stopped. Now the 45-year-old is selling off his collection of more than 400 of the portable stereos on the auction site Trade Me, with a starting bid of $20,000.

It’s an impressive collection and includes rarities like the JC-2000 Master Blaster, the largest one-piece radio ever produced, with 10-inch speakers on either side, reports Brad Flahive at Stuff. At least 300 are in working order, maintained and repaired by Kenton himself. “My favorite is the Sanyo Big Ben,” Kenton says. “It’s called that because of the eight-inch subwoofer it has in the middle of it. It’s quite rare that one.”

Boomboxes, large radio/cassette players powered by up to 20 D-cell batteries, were ubiquitous around the United States in the 1980s, writes James Phillips at Gizmodo. In New York City in particular it was common to see young people walking around with the sometimes gigantic appliances on their shoulder, blasting music to the delight of many and the chagrin of commuters on the subway.

Boomboxes were integral in the development of breakdancing and street dancing. They were also one of the cornerstones of early hip-hop culture. Users could record live hip-hop sets at house parties on their boomboxes and could tape songs off the radio. Blasters with double tape decks let people dub cassettes they liked, which helped spread the music. Also, some owners cranked their boxes so loud it was difficult to ignore the new music coming out of them.

“A big part of this hip-hop culture in the beginning was putting things in your face, whether you liked it or not,” hip-hop pioneer and first host of Yo! MTV Raps Fred Brathwaite, aka Fab 5 Freddy, tells Frannie Kelley at NPR. “That was the graffiti, that’s like a break dance battle right at your feet, you know what I'm saying? Or this music blasting loud, whether you wanted to hear it or not.”

Freddy’s boombox, a 1985 Sharp Electronics HK-9000 is now in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Kenton too, says he wouldn’t mind his collection ending up in a museum.“Finding them has been a big part of my life. I feel like the collection is a piece of 80s art, and I hope they go somewhere they can be seen,” he tells Flahive.

By the late 1980s, boomboxes began falling out of favor, writes Kelley. Many cities passed noise ordinances to get them off the streets, and a glut of cheap boxes with poor sound quality took over as the boxes hit the mainstream. In their place rose another technology that ruled for over a decade before the rise of the iPod: the Walkman.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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